The Hidden Purpose in the Wound: Living Into the Metaphor of Scoliosis by Hilary Buckwalter Kesti

One of my professors at Pacifica, Glen Slater, once said, “There is a fork in the road when it comes to suffering, either you suffer into awareness or constrict into feelings of inadequacy and stuckness…” As a young woman, I experienced a trauma when I unwittingly hurt my back. The ramifications and suffering that followed lasted for decades. From a Depth Psychological perspective our afflictions and suffering are potential opportunities to encounter soul, to delve into the purpose of soul making. What is not admitted into conscious awareness, or that which we fear, repress, hold down, or otherwise don’t know about ourselves, can sometimes manifest as a physical problem or mental illness that arise symptomatically in an effort to get our attention. In other words, what we resist can make us sick, or show up as symptoms.

Depth Psychologically, to be in relationship with these afflictions be it a disease, mental illness, or physical disability, can expand our suffering into a larger story, in which there are hidden jewels and gifts buried in the darkness. In retrospect, through this lens, hurting my back was a call from within. An opportunity for me to listen to my soul speaking.

When I was fifteen years old, I threw my back out doing karate kicks around my backyard. I had checked out a book on karate from our library; martial arts classes being in short supply in the banal midwestern town where I grew up. My parents begrudgingly took me to a chiropractor who examined and x-rayed my back, only to discover that not only did I accidentally pull open my sacroiliac joint which what was causing the pain, but I also had a relatively severe case of idiopathic scoliosis, or a curvature of the spine with no known cause. The chiropractor suggested we go to a children’s hospital in a larger city, where they could deal with the scope of my disorder in a more skillful way.

The word scoliosis comes from the ancient Greek word skoliosis, which literally means “a bend.” In the 1990’s the typical medical perspective on scoliosis went one of two ways. If the curvature was bad enough, surgery was required which consisted of putting two steel rods into the patients back on either side of the spine, to keep the curvature from getting worse. This modality significantly reduced mobility in the patient and was quite painful. Option number two, depending again on the degree of curvature and age of the patient, was to design a back brace that would be worn by the patient, most often 23 hours a day. The brace was intended to keep the curvature from getting worse as the patient continued to grow.

In my case, my spine was shaped like an “S,” with a cervical curve, a thoracic curve, and a very deep lumbar curve. Dr. Denise, a Frenchman, informed me that my lumbar curve was just 2 degrees shy of surgery. I think it is also worth mentioning here since I am a budding Depth Psychologist, that my curvatures are all one-sided, or pulled to one side. “One-sidedness” is a big term in my field of study. It refers to how we can psychologically move too far in one direction. For example believing we are all good, or all bad; two ends of a spectrum or pairs of opposites. Being one-sided means that we are stuck in a mode of being that negates or represses the multiplicity of human experience, because in fact, we are ALL both good AND bad. So, Depth Psychologically, for me, it is interesting to imagine into that image of a lopsided back as a manifestation of a lopsided psyche! The Doctors solution: brace it until I stopped growing.

As an already shy and introverted teenager with braces on her teeth, the idea of a cumbersome and ugly back brace was the worst news anyone could have possibly given me. At a time when fitting in was paramount, I was going to stick out like a sore crooked thumb. Dr. Denise informed me that I would probably wear the brace for up to 2 years and that I would need to wear it 23 hours a day (one hour out for showering). I was devastated. The hospital staff suggested to my parents that they make me an appointment with a counselor so that I could talk about any difficulties I might be having with this news. My simple parents declined, not hip on “head shrinkers,” nor understanding my internal devastation.

I was alone to deal with the multitude of difficult feelings and intense suffering. At night, I cried into my pillow so that no one could here me. What followed that initial appointment were a series of trips to that metropolitan city where I underwent x-rays, body casts, and what seemed like torture in the form of brace fittings, as technicians encased my body in steel, plastic, and foam. The brace went from just under my chin, all the way down past my hips. Two steel rods ran down the back, connecting the neck piece to the hip piece. One steel rod ran down the front, connecting in the same way. There was a belt to pull my waist in tight, and a plastic shoulder piece that I slid my arm into and then hooked on the back bar. The shoulder piece held me unwilling left shoulder down, forcing my lopsidedness into false alignment.

The brace was supposed to fit under my clothes, but the neck piece stuck out awkwardly, and the steel bars made humps under my shirt, like a teenage Quasimodo. The plastic hip pieces came down too far, so when I sat in a chair, I was catapulted forward at an awkward angle, spine erect, sitting in a position that no one would ever sit in naturally. The pain and suffering seemed endless. I could have died from shame. I was firmly lodged in the physical suffering from an ego standpoint and I became fixated on my diagnosis.

Hence, by naming my malady scoliosis and declaring that the brace was the only savior, I became limited by a story that was small, unimaginative, and not malleable enough to contain more than one possibility. I believed what the Doctors told me, that the scoliosis would never get better, that I would have arthritis in my back by the time I was 28, and that if the brace didn’t work, I would need surgery.

In the face of that stark prognosis, I dissociated. For years, I left the ground of my physical body, and moved into the upper realms of intelligence and reason. I kicked myself out of my body, and cut myself off at the roots. Depth Psychology however, tells us there might be something more to the story, a different way to contain suffering, illness, and disease. In fact, it implores us to ponder the hidden purpose in the wound.

My dissociated state was stuckness writ large; my soul was speaking to me through my spine and I could not hear it. At 15 years old, I didn’t have a container or the language within which to understand such a thing, and hence, there was no opening to soul, no curiosity about a larger soulful story, at least not then.

Depth Psychologist James Hillman called this type of difficulty, “…separatio…a sense of being stuck in one’s problem." This separation or dissociation is the opposite of “seeing through” or opening to soul and metaphor. Seeing through requires mettle, grit, fortitude, and resilience. At 15, that was lost on me. Now at forty-one, there is a chance to inquire into what happened, what I felt, and what I can do now to invite more mystery into my story of living with scoliosis.

Rather than rushing into action, or trying to fix it, living into the metaphor of suffering is about being with the stuckness, the difficulty, the curvature—rather than aligning oneself solely with the diagnosis or the symptoms. And while I have successfully reduced the curvatures of my spine through yoga and other healing modalities (take that Dr. Denise!), there are still lingering scars and a larger story that remains—one that is soulful, archetypal, and so much larger than the merely physical story I was stuck in.

The animating theme of scoliosis is that it is an abnormality. The image of the curved spine sets one apart from the crowd through a physical difference. Scoliosis can alienate and arouse suspicion. A crooked person can also arouse feeling of fear of contagion. One does not want to contract what the person with the handicap has. There is a vulnerability here, as the crooked one is cast outside the group. Archetypally this feels related to the Outcast.

 The Outcast is the scapegoat, the proverbial sacrifice. By expunging the Outcast from the group or larger society, the dominant paradigm is able to remain in play. If the Outcast is exiled at the edge, everyone can point their finger outward, rather than having to look within.

In my case, the images of the curved spine and the cold plastic brace stand out, but so do images of standing alone. Image is psyche. Which is fascinating to imagine into, as I have found myself in a position of having to stand in my truth, often alone, many times since. To say that being exiled at the edge has been a constant reoccurring theme in my life would be an understatement. There is an Outcast quality to these experiences. They have made me stronger and given me the fortitude to stand alone when it matters, even when my voice shakes.

Looking at the archetype of the Outcast with a sense of mystery, I can now ask from the soul’s perspective, what made my suffering necessary? In retrospect I can see how I saw my life through my deformity and acted accordingly. Presently it feels spacious to lean into it instead, looking at my spine from the standpoint of soul. There is freedom here.

Through suffering I have met new parts of myself. It’s almost as if scoliosis was a training ground, a Heroine’s journey into the underworld to gather the materials that I would eventually require. In these underworld journeys, in our suffering, this is where we dissolve, and meet the multiplicity of ourselves. Hillman called this necessary disintegration in the underworld, “falling apart.”  This is where soul rejoins symptom for me, in the dissolution, the loss, in falling apart to a larger story; making room for what serves soul. This descent into our own darkness and suffering is a necessary component of soul. Thus, my experience of scoliosis has helped me imagine into a larger way of leaning into suffering. What an invaluable gift!

Living into my experience with scoliosis through soul and metaphor has led to more insight and depth. There is within this personal drama a sense of myth enactment that reaches forward all the way to my present experience. I remain curious about the deeper story and the animating themes of one sided curvatures and scapegoats. There is no arrival fantasy, no endpoint, no certificate that says I have completed the requirements. In place of those earthly ideals, there remains an openness and a new way of holding the imaginal in my life.

Seeing through the symptoms and diagnosis into metaphor has brought me into a larger story about who I am and how I carry myself in this world. This is what Professor Glen Slater calls, “a necessary mess.” I am becoming a weary veteran of sitting with what is transpiring, rather than running, or looking to the light, or trying to rationalize my way out of the discomfort. I find solace in the idea that we must let go of what no longer serves to make room for what is to come.

I feel gratitude for this soul journey, for this opportunity to deepen my practice, to gain consciousness, to remember that I am involved in a divine play that is bigger than being human. And I am grateful for Depth Psychology, and the wisdom it holds, the way it contains my small human experiences in a rich and meaningful way, allowing me to look at my suffering in all of its different facets, and to hold it accordingly.

“Why do we focus so intensely on our problems? What draws us to them? Why are they so attractive? They have the magnet power of love: somehow we desire our problems; we are in love with them as much as we want to get rid of them…problems sustain us—maybe that is why they don’t go away. What would a life be without them? Completely tranquilized and loveless…there is a secret love hiding in each problem.” -James Hillman

Hilary Buckwalter Kesti